Monday 30 January 2012

Definitions of Modernism: The New Objectivity

I have been meaning to thank Nick Lambrianou from the 'Shock of the New' course at Birkbeck College for some time. I went into that course in 2009 with a rather closed mind and during the class introduction, I laid out the challenge he faced: 'I'm a Renaissance girl. Modern art? Convince me!'.

Then I started doing research into what modernism was and the resultant effect stunned me; all this modern stuff in some ways felt more real and relevant to my life. So I set out before you (and to refresh myself) what I initially found and presented to class.

After reading and discarding many dictionary and encyclopaedia entries of the term modernism, I want to simply define it as an ethos which dominated Western 19th- and 20th-century culture – a celebration or reflection of the possibilities – or impossibilities of the present. It is impossible to define because:

Definitions of modernism have evolved; our definitions are necessarily different from someone like Baudelaire in the mid nineteenth century or Apollinaire in 1910s, or Greenberg in the 1950-60s. From our current point in time we have the benefit of seeing the developing sequence of events – or at least a version of events which wouldn’t be available to previous historic commentators.

The critical viewpoints of commentators have also changed so that each decade has put its own spin on the term. For example, until the 1970s the term modernism was generally the preserve of art historians and literary critics. Then the term was broadened to include other disciplines; socio-historical, cultural and political. And currently it seems that modernism is a term to be compared and contrasted with post modernism – presumably an attempt to define something by saying what it is not.

All of this is very vague and unsatisfactory with none of the academic definitions really helping me get to the nub of what modernism is. Which frankly left me clamouring to go back to the relative clarity of sixteenth iconography. Taking the hint, I simply went back to the art and its context.

I had various statements/definitions that needed testing and required a 'modern art movement' to use as an example. I chose Die Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) which is defined and discussed in relation to each statement.

Statement 1: That modernism can be defined as an artistic response to a culture in crisis

The years of the Weimar Republic 1919-1933 are perfect examples of a world in flux – politically, economically and socially. If writer Bernard Smith is to believed, ‘Twentieth century modernism was created before, during and after the Great War’ which would make the appearance of Die Neue Sachlichkeit or 'New Objectivity' very significant as it was similarly created in and around the war.

It has to be noted that the term Neue Sachlichkeit, even allowing for the language barrier is rather imprecise. Sachlichkeit can be translated as objectivity, impartiality, sobriety, ‘matter of factness’, practicality and the term reflects not only a new style but also a new way of seeing.

'New Objectivity' was coined by GF Hartlaub in 1923 and reached more general audiences in 1925 when his exhibition of post expressionist German art went on tour. His aim was to bring together representative works which were neither impressionistically vague nor expressionistically abstract, contemporary artists who in his view had remained faithful to tangible reality.

The vigorously eclectic New Objectivity didn’t spring up fully formed. It was born out of the war experiences of German expressionists, Verists and Dadaists and broadly describes the culture or attitude of the Weimar Republic (1918-1933) where new sober realism – the portrayal of the street, the factory, the shop floor, brothel or shipyard – was the order of the day.

Unlike many art movements of the early 20th century, there were no manifestos or theoretical writings, no international influences or violent activism, so it seems to be a representing a changed attitude to modern life, more of a weary acceptance of progress, rather than a joyous embrace of new technologies.

The many conflicting political views within the New Objectivity reflect the Weimar Republic itself, as William Barrett said, ‘an epoch reveals itself in its art’. In contrast to the luxurious, almost frivolous Parisian Art Deco which aimed to please and amuse, New Objectivity was conceived out of the struggle to change the social contract within the troubled Weimar Republic. Though it failed in transforming the political landscape, it is important to realise that the art need not be rejected. Despite its exaggeration, it still works as a model of intellectual affirmation or dissent though its combination of savage ideological polarities and the distorted aesthetics of Expressionism. (Robert Hughes).

Georg Scholz, Industriebauern | Industrial Farmers, 1920
Oil and collage on wood
Von der Heydt-Museum, Wuppertal
An example of this would be Georg Scholz’s Industrial Peasants (1920). It is an oil painting with collage which depicts a reactionary wealthy farming household; Bible-clutching farmer with money erupting from his forehead who is seated next to his monstrous wife who cradles a piglet.

Their subhuman son, his head open at the top to show that it is empty, is torturing a frog. It is an exceptionally cynical and grotesque form of realism.

Statement 2. That modernism acknowledges a looking back as well as looking forward

It is fair to say that Modernism has a Janus-faced character to it. On one hand it was about progress, radical transformation, a succession of exciting –isms. But some aspects of modern life were unpleasant, bringing about a destructive war, economic and social uncertainty. By breaking with the subjectivism and individualism of the pre war avant gardes and returning to the practical or functional depiction of everyday life, New Objectivity was looking to make sense of the world and bring things under control again.

The reuse of a form of classicism by Carl Grossberg or Franz Radziwill demonstrates a stillness, a lack of humanity and a detachment from reality which was in some ways quite radical – the emotion of the Expressionists was turning in on itself, making the art perhaps more eloquent and ‘psychological’.

Franz Radziwill, Der Hafen II (The Harbor II), 1930
New National Gallery, Berlin
The little person is at the mercy of the modern technological world and he has little control, therefore the desire to cling on to something of a more human scale is strong. For example, the hulls of the ships in Radziwill’s picture loom ominously over the tiny sailing boats and their occupants.

The return to the conservative use of a stable pictorial space spoke of the artists needs to react against the artistic anarchy of the cubists, Dadaist etc so ‘a revived naturalism or realism became the goal; an accessible art, capable of speaking to the people in a language everyone could understand’.

© Christian Schad Stiftung Aschaffenburg/
VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn and DACS, London 2002
This reactionary aspect of New Objectivity has disturbed and embarrassed some theorists because they saw it as the germination of the official Nazi style. However it has been pointed out that connections between New Objectivity and Nazi art can only be made on a superficial level. The whole point of the movement was to depict the truth, no matter how grim or ugly whereas art proscribed by the Third Reich was certainly not concerned with understanding or reality. The fact that most of the artists involved in this movement were stripped of professorial honours, that they were not allowed to exhibit publicly or indeed persecuted generally shows that they were not acceptable in the eyes of the new regime.

Statement 3. That modernism encompasses an entire cultural movement

One really important point to be made here is that the name of the movement was created by an exhibition. Not by the artists. This easily remembered, simple, commercial slogan imposed a cultural idea on a disparate group of people and looked to encompass much more than a new realism and ‘sobriety’ in painting.

It was symptomatic of a broader cultural movement. When the Weimar Republic enjoyed its brief window of fiscal stability, relaxation in political violence, renewed prestige abroad, reasonable levels of prosperity, other areas of the arts such as theatre, publishing, journalism, photography, music and architecture were influenced by this new matter of factness, No longer was there a striving for emotional effects but a universal embracing of strength, clarity and display of modern technologies.

For me New Objectivity is a perfect example of a modernist art movement. Its images and ideas can be exceptionally closely identified with its time, leaving us in no doubt that the artists were passionately committed to their varied viewpoints and determined to make sense of, and respond to contemporary events. Crucially, their art tells a story of their time.

Which has left me hooked on modern art...

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